Why to Reform the Jails? - Seeker's Thoughts

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Friday, 26 October 2018

Why to Reform the Jails?

The Jails and Prisons

India has a more than a century-old system of prisons in India and certainly it needs repair.  Across the globe the data on prison overcrowding is frightening. In parts of Europe, where crime is still low or at acceptable levels, overcrowding is controlled.

 In the U.S., for example, has larger number of gun violence and a harsh racist overtone in combating crime, the prison system is creaking under the stress of numbers.

Therefore, not only in India but across the globe the numbers are uncontrolled. While public officials and social workers are agreed upon the need to reduce overcrowding, there is hardly any convergence on how to go about this delicate exercise.

The question often asked by governments is, in these days of extreme fiscal stress, why should state resources be diverted to a ‘negative exercise, whose benefits are dubious’?

There are those who believe that if you keep improving prison conditions, there is likely to be an attendant impact on the incidence of crime.

This accounts for the reluctance of many criminal justice administrators to employ or enlarge non-prison alternatives such as community service.

The offshoot of all this is growing numbers of prisoners and the woeful incapacity of governments to build more and larger prisons.

This is why jail officials are often asked to ‘somehow manage’ with existing modest facilities.

 The Supreme Court and Committee on Prison Reforms

The Supreme Court formed a committee on prison reforms headed by former Supreme Court judge, Justice Amitava Roy,  to look into the entire gamut of reforms to the prison system.

However, in the past the Justice A.N. Mulla committee and the Justice Krishna Iyer committee on women prisoners (both in the 1980s) was also formed on the similar context.

There is no deny that very minimum reforms have taken place, but there is a lot more to be done as basic human rights are not received by the prisoners.

The Objective of Prison Sentences - A Punishment or Vengeance?

The Jail sentences are often treated in the light of  revenge or vengeance on the criminal, however the basic nature of putting someone behind bar was- to punish so that a criminal can realize the severity of the crime done by him or her and they get a chance to improve too except a few heinous crimes.

The social attitude towards people who are behind bars is conflicting in nature where majority of the crowd supports a negative attitude towards prisoners and favours unfavorable conditions.

Data about Prisons

In India, the publication, Prison Statistics India, brought out by the National Crime Records Bureau will provide food for thought for the Justice Roy Committee.

In 2015, there were nearly 4.2 lakh inmates in 1,401 facilities, with an average occupancy rate of 114% in most.

Under- Trail and higher than International Standards

-About 67% of total inmates were under- trials, a commentary on the speed and efficiency of India’s criminal justice system.

-Occupancy by under trials67% of the people in Indian jails are under trials which is extremely high by international standards like it is 11% in UK, 20% in US and 29% in France .

 Higher number of Males

Males at 400,855 make up 95.8% of prisoners while females at 17,681 represent 4.2%.

Judicial Backlogs

Due to 1 crore cases (2016) pending in various courts of the country, jails across the country will remain overcrowded in the absence of any effective systemic intervention.

Inadequacy of Prisons Capacity 

Most Indian prisons were built in the colonial era, are in constant need of repair and part of them are uninhabitable for long periods.

Unaffordability of Legal Aid

Many inmates are unaware of their rights and cannot afford legal aid, limited ability to communicate with lawyers from within the jail premises hampers their ability to defend themselves.

Problems in acquiring bail

 For poor and marginalized it is also difficult to get bail which leaves them no option but to stay in jails and wait for courts final order.

Unnecessary arrests

Over 60 per cent of arrests were unnecessary and such arrests accounted for 3 per cent of jail expenditure.

The suggestion of the Committee on Jail Reform

The terms of reference for the new committee are omnibus and seem ambitious.

Prison Reforms are not coming for Implementation:

Handling white collar crime

There is a popular view that in order to reduce prison populations, proven non-violent offenders could be dealt with differently.

White collar crime has assumed monstrous proportions but there is no reason why we should continue to lock up offenders instead of merely depriving them of their illegal gains.

Devising swift processes of attachment of properties and freezing of bank accounts are alternatives to a jail term.

The argument that not all gains made by an economic offender are open is not convincing enough to opt for incarceration over punitive material penalties.

In India, progress has been made in freezing ‘benami’ holdings of major offenders even though it may not be a 100% effective step of cleaning up.

But these are the first steps towards making economic crimes unaffordable and unattractive for the average offender.

Prison officials and political will

Another complaint against prisons is the brutality and venality of prison officials, again common across the world. A solution will be a point to ponder over for the Justice Roy Committee.

Finally, improving prison conditions has no political leverage. Just as humane prisons do not win votes, the bad ones do not lose votes for any political party.

As long as there are no stakes here for lawmakers, one can hardly hope for model prisons, where inmates are accommodated with due regard to their basic human needs and are handled with dignity.


More than a century-old system of prisons in India needs an urgent attention where prisoners can receive the basic facilities.

Overcrowding, more number of under trials than convicted prisoners, delayed justice, inhumane conditions, brutality and lack of basic human need facilities are some of the major issues in Indian prisons.

Justice Amitava Roy committee is a ray of hope in the direction of prison reforms, but without political reforms in India’s criminal justice system are impossible.